Most food waste occurs at the consumer level

April 2, 2018

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an organization established by the governments of Canada, Mexico, and the United States, has released a report on the state of food loss and waste in those countries. “Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America” documents adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts of food loss and waste, and actions that the industrial, commercial, institutional, government, and nongovernmental sectors can implement to mitigate these impacts.

The report estimates that 168 million tons of food are wasted in North America each year, with Americans wasting 915 lb per capita, Canadians 873 lb per capita, and Mexicans 549 lb per capita. With notable differences between the three countries, the report finds that the largest share of food loss and waste in North America, 67 million tons/year, occurs at the consumer level. There are 52 million tons wasted in the industrial, commercial, and institutional levels and 49 million tons at the pre-harvest level. These losses represent a huge waste of social, economic, and natural resources and have significant environmental impacts. 

The report also provides a closer examination of the primary causes and potential solutions to reduce the problem, focusing on overproduction, product damage, lack of standardized date labeling practices, lack of cold chain infrastructure, rigid food grading specifications, and varying customer demand and market fluctuations. A key finding is that distributors, retailers, food rescue organizations and foodservice providers have a critical role to play in realizing solutions.

The report outlines several key areas of opportunity to address food loss and waste in the industrial, commercial, and institutional sectors:

  • Source reduction: Reducing food waste at the source through inventory management and offering reduced portion sizes in foodservice to reduce plate waste, increasing the marketability of produce by accepting and integrating second-grade produce into retail settings (typically at a discount), storage and transportation improvements to maintain quality, and collaboration between stakeholders to standardize date labels so they are clear and consistent to reduce confusion at all stages of the food supply chain.
  • Rescue for human consumption: Encourage donation of safe and nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted, through financial incentives for food donation, liability protection for food donors, online food rescue platforms, expanded funding to improve infrastructure, and donation-tracking in food rescue and recovery systems

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with food loss and waste, the report lists source reduction, food rescue, and recovery as having the greatest potentials for savings on greenhouse gas emissions and as preferable to recycling. Disposal is identified as the least preferable approach.

Report (pdf)